Seeing the world through the eyes of a giant is good for a change.
This year, I was among 50 young Latin American leaders participating at the World Economic Forum on Latin America. Most of us founded our start-ups or organizations within the last four years, many with good local or regional economic, social and environmental impact.
As we all grapple with the challenges of growth, competitiveness, fundraising and team-building, we rarely have a chance to imagine what it would be like if our initiatives were huge: How would our path be different if we were leading the company with the largest distribution reach in the world?
We had the rare opportunity to engage in a transformative conversation with two of Coca-Cola’s top executives for Latin America: Rafael Fernandez Quiros, vice president of Public Affairs and Communications, Coca-Cola Latin America, and Francisco Suarez, corporate affairs officer, Coca-Cola FEMSA. The dialogue was candid, inspirational and, at times, critical. Above all, what made this conversation special was that it was horizontal – it invited both executives and Global Shapers to stand in each other’s shoes, share challenges and reach deeply empathetic insights.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
When he became CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, Muhtar Kent understood that he had in his hands a tremendous potential to leave a positive mark in the world, an opportunity that could not be missed.
Water is the primary resource Coca-Cola uses in its value chain – as with any non-renewable resource, returning it to nature is critical to the long-term sustainability of the company. Mr. Kent and his global team committed in 2007 to return clean water to the source where their products are locally produced. Through a combination of reusing and reducing the use of the water they recover, partnerships for conservation and reforestation, and technology for rainwater catchment, Coca-Cola plans on becoming at least water neutral. Particularly impressive, Coca-Cola is on track to fully replenish its water use, and in some markets, is on track to be water positive (returning more water than they use).
Women make up the majority of local distribution suppliers for Coca-Cola around the world – another opportunity not to miss. Having direct access to millions of women in their value chain gives the company a unique opportunity to offer empowerment tools, financial services and support networks. By 2020, the company plans to have reached 5 million of these women with their program, hoping to impact millions more who surround them. Beyond good impact, the plan is good business: distribution suppliers are the main link between Coca-Cola and its consumers, and having stable, loyal suppliers in more prosperous communities is in the company’s interest. It takes visionary leadership to recognize this opportunity and maintain commitment to the project within the company.
Giving Agency to Internal Leaders
Large scale projects with global impact make sense for a company the size of Coca-Cola: large reach makes for ambitious projects. Yet, Global Shapers asked, is there room for intrapreneurs to innovate and leverage company opportunities borne of local need? The answer is yes – the company is exploring a circular economy design project with the potential of transforming thousands of communities, an idea that was born from two guys chatting and sharing a beer.
Francisco Suarez of FEMSA shared how he experienced a moment of inspiration with William McDonough, an architect and innovator. After having a few inspiring conversations about the principles of design for the Circular Economy, they wondered how recycled PET could be converted into a vehicle for community empowerment. Their conversation over beers turned into a brainstorming session and later into a proposal to build structures that can provide shelter, solar power and internet connectivity to local Coca-Cola distributors around the world.
Believing in the power of individuals’ agency is key to empowering leadership within a large company. Coca-Cola gave Francisco room and resources to build on a great idea. This April, the company announced its support for WonderShade – a conceptual project to use Cradle to Cradle thinking and upcycled materials for millions in need.
The WonderShade would empower local entrepreneurs in up to 2.8 million points of sale in Mexico to grow their community through a Recycled PET structure powered by solar panels and equipped with internet connectivity. The potential is limitless when communities are connected – local leaders will then have a vehicle for developing new business opportunities, distribution channels for health, education and emergency services.
Fostering New Leadership
One of the aspects of our conversations that surprised Global Shapers the most is the company’s commitment to developing youth leadership – the company understands the challenges in finding more and new innovations for empowering communities, becoming more efficient with water, reusing their packaging and becoming more sustainable.
Knowing that innovations tend to come from those willing to take risks and operate in more independent settings, the company has become a pioneer in supporting young innovators across Mexico. Their Jovenes con Valor project supports the incubation of social and environmental innovations with sustainable business models through a partnership with an initiative led by a Global Shaper from Monterrey. The project helps young social entrepreneurs solve local community problems, but with a business model behind its operations, and in a structured incubation program. Creating opportunities for social entrepreneurs as new leaders results in transformation.
Beyond Corporate Social Responsibility: A Vision for a Global Company
It was a refreshing surprise to find so much passion about making positive change in the world from two corporate executives. Coca-Cola seems like it has achieved its market potential around the world, so we couldn’t help but ask: what would the Coca-Cola of your dreams look like? The answer went beyond corporate responsibility, to the core of the company’s purpose: both Rafael and Francisco want to see a company that brings economic and product value to its consumers, demonstrates a commitment to sustainability, and is recognized as an active partner of those working to foster progress in the communities where they work.
The dialogue felt refreshing, hopeful and horizontal – many of us left with a burning challenge – what would we do if one of us were leading one of the largest companies in the world? What would be different if a Global Shaper stood in those shoes? It is clear that we share a commitment to steering the ship towards sustainability and improving lives. In my case, I would promote affordable alternatives to high-sugar products by investing in more and better organic and nutritional beverage options. This is a direction in which the company is already taking steps in markets like the United States.
We share the same challenges as leaders, whether in our own local communities or behind an executive desk with the potential power to scale globally. Yet, we rarely have opportunities to share, in empathy, the toils of the responsibilities we have chosen to take on. Having had this opportunity at the World Economic Forum, I am reminded of Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s words, which apply to young community leaders in the same way as it does to Muhtar Kent – “Leaders wake people out of inertia. They must get people excited about something they’ve never seen before, something that does not yet exist.”
Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter is the curator of the Global Shapers Quito Hub.
Seeing the world through the eyes of a giant is good for a change.